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Shorthanded Hawks show resilience in loss to Celtics

A spirited effort but not enough for a victory.

Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks entered Monday night’s contest against the Boston Celtics at State Farm Arena with their backs very much against the wall.

After a damaging night in Dallas, the Hawks eventually ruled out Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, DeAndre’ Bembry, Alex Len and Jabari Parker (the latter two have been out for a while now), leaving the Hawks very shorthanded. In response, Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce ran with a starting an untested lineup of Trae Young, Jeff Teague, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Damian Jones.

The Celtics also entered last night’s game without key personnel — All-Star Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart were ruled out, but they were boosted by the return of Enes Kanter in a limited role, who did certainly provide a boost in his brief time on the court.

In the end, the Hawks ultimately fell short in their efforts, 123-115.

Trae Young led the way with 34 points while Kevin Huerter added 23 points. For the Celtics, Jayson Tatum scored 28 points, Gordon Hayward added 24 points.

Let’s get into this one.

Second half let-down, Hawks unable to overcome lack of personnel

The Hawks were up against it heading in but as the first half unfolded they were hanging around and were, in fact, leading for the majority of the first half.

Trae Young’s 17 first quarter points and the Hawks’ 62% first quarter shooting obviously help you do that and while that number cooled down in the second quarter, the Hawks still shot 54% in the first half and somehow took the lead with a ridiculous John Collins three-pointer at the buzzer:

However, the Hawks did not start the third quarter well and the Celtics reeled off a 9-2 run to not only retake the lead (one that they would not give up again) but a five-point lead, and it would not take the Celtics long to establish a double-digit lead.

While Kemba Walker missed this game, the Celtics still possessed three wing threats — Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — to give the Hawks trouble, especially given the absences of Reddish, Hunter and Bembry. It was those three players who combined for 28 of the Celtics’ 35 third quarter points, Tatum leading the way for 15 points in the third.

No matter who guarded Tatum in the third quarter, the result was the same. It’s a tough matchup on any night but especially when the Hawks are missing the majority of their wing defenders.

Heading up the court, Tatum handles the ball, Damian Jones picks Tatum and Tatum pulls up and hits the three:

Faced with John Collins on this possession, Tatum sizes Collins up and hits him with the step-back:

Working in the post, Tatum puts Treveon Graham to work and drains the turnaround fadeaway jumper:

“Some of their guys got going. Tatum was a handful,” said Pierce postgame. “... they were going to play their guys and their guys really got going. I’m talking about Hayward, Brown and Tatum in that third quarter. To really just create the separation, and once they had the separation we were basically playing catch up from a six-to-eight-point game most of the way...”

Tatum would continue to make shots in the fourth quarter but the Hawks found a lineup that brought them close, trimming that double-digit deficit — Jeff Teague, Kevin Huerter, Evan Turner, John Collins and Damian Jones.

Huerter played all 12 minutes of the final quarter, scored 10 points and hits two big three-pointers, this first one from deep:

Jayson Tatum immediately responds with a three-pointer of his own to push the lead back to six points after the Hawks allow Kanter to slip away in the pick-and-roll, Kanter is found by Hayward, makes the pass to Tatum once Collins slides over and Tatum knocks down the three:

As quickly as Tatum responded, Huerter had his lined up as he uses the Jones screen, side-steps to his left and hits the three to cut the lead back to a single possession:

The Celtics would then come up empty on their next possession, giving the Hawks the chance to cut the lead to one point or tie the game with a three.

With Trae Young still on the bench, Jeff Teague handles the ball, weaves his way into position, Jones takes Brown out of the equation, and Teague gets a good look at a floater but it comes up short:

I imagine there’ll be those that question “Why wasn’t Young in the game??” but that lineup — somehow, given its weirdness — had found something and whatever it was was working and I think it was the correct decision to allow to roll for all it was worth. But the Hawks obviously couldn’t keep Young on the bench for the whole stretch, and after that missed shot from Teague the Celtics took a timeout. Once the action returned, so did Young.

The Celtics pushed the lead back to eight points but the Hawks threatened again to come back after a layup from Collins cut the lead to four with 1:24 remaining. A missed shot from the Celtics allowed the Hawks, again, the chance to cut the lead to a single possession.

Unfortunately, Young’s pass on the drive finds air and the Celtics come away with the ball and, from there, they were able to close the game out, the final nails in the coffin coming on this make from Grant Williams as he drives past the Hawks defense to the rim:

Followed by the miss from Huerter coming out of the timeout:

This was a quick shot, but I think that’s what it needed to be for the Hawks to have a chance in this one. Time was short and if the Hawks dilly-dally and miss then there’s obviously no chance as the Celtics just ice from the line. But with a quick shot, if it goes in it cuts the lead to three points with around 32 seconds remaining, meaning if the Hawks got a stop (the Celtics have to play it), they could go for the tie and they still have time. It wasn’t a bad shot from Huerter either, he got a good look at it.

In the end, no dice for the Hawks on a night where bodies were so low that Evan Turner featured in a game for the first time since December 28th (and played 21 minutes) and Treveon Graham played 17 minutes.

A valiant effort.

“I thought our guys competed tonight,” said Pierce in his opening statement. “We were expecting to play a lot of zone, which we don’t normally do, just to try and preserve some bodies and I thought the guys were competitive and allowed us to just play basketball. We were able to throw different combinations that we hadn’t used all year: Evan Turner, Jeff and Trae, Treveon. We were just throwing bodies out there and I thought our guys did a really good job of competing and putting themselves in a position to win while we were extremely short handed, which is encouraging to see.

“Costly turnovers. They did a good job of just keeping us from three-point opportunities in the second half. I think, (that half) was probably the lowest attempts for us in a half all year when we were really shooting the basketball pretty well. But they did a good job of taking that away and putting us in crowds.”

Two things to talk about here after reading those quotes...

Pierce mentioned turnovers, the Hawks committed 17 on the night leading to 23 Boston points. The Celtics did their best to get involved in the fourth quarter by coughing the ball up on 10 occasions (which displeased Celtics head coach Brad Stevens) in the fourth quarter compared to the Hawks’ five.

The issue, however, is that four of those came from Young, who committed nine turnover in total on the night, which is too many — which Young himself also owned, attributing some of those turnovers to a lack of chemistry with some of the Hawks’ new lineups last night.

“I think it’s just trying to figure out how to play with this type of lineup,” said Young on the Hawks’ different lineups. “There were a lot of times when I was jumping in the air and passing expecting someone to be in the corner and it just wasn’t there. It’s just a different type of lineup. We haven’t played this way, we haven’t played this type of lineup. We don’t necessarily have that type of chemistry where I know somebody’s going to be in that corner, or somebody’s going to be slashing at this time. So that’s going to cause turnovers. I turned the ball over way too much tonight. That’s a big part of why we lost.”

Young referenced the different lineups and this was obviously one of the bigger themes from last night — ‘how do you guys make up for the lack of players?’

“That’s the toughest part is just trying to figure that out,” said Collins postgame. “You just have to go with the flow and see which guys are giving you production, who’s guarding who well enough to stay in, whether to switch or not. Just make adjustments as the game goes on.”

“It’s super tough,” added Young. “Obviously, we’re already the youngest team in the league when everybody’s healthy. But when we have two, three of our starters out and one of our main guys coming off the bench, it’s tough. We have to mix in some lineups, trying to make it work. That’s the NBA. We’ve got to try to figure it out and figure out how to get some wins.”

The other item Pierce mentioned was three-point shooting.

Having shot 10-of-21 from three in the first half, the Hawks shot just 2-of-9 from three in the second half, and didn’t hit a three until the fourth quarter — the two from Kevin Huerter that we looked at already.

Three-point shooting was keeping the Hawks where they were in the first half and to be effectively be without that in the second half, that obviously hurts and it was no coincidence the Hawks fell behind without that.

All things considered, the Hawks punched above their weight — if you had said coming into the game that, despite the shortcomings, the Hawks would be within one/two possessions later in the fourth quarter, I think you’d be happy with that. I thought they caught a break when Daniel Theis went down with an ankle injury, taking size away from the Celtics on a night the Hawks did not have it but that’s just how it goes sometimes.

Kevin Huerter

Kevin Huerter had an interesting game last night and it’s worth its own spot to talk about after this game, because there’s a few things worth mentioning.

The second-year wing obviously had to play a lot bigger than normal, deployed as the small forward for the majority of this game and I thought he played well in that spot and stepped up last night. Defensively, I like Huerter and, while he doesn’t have the same talents as Cam Reddish defensively, he can still be solid, and it won’t be every night a trio of wings in the form of Hayward, Tatum and Brown coming at you, trying to punish you.

I wouldn’t mind seeing Huerter a little more at small forward in some lineups, for those occasions where you might want to play Young with Teague/Goodwin. It might be only be for a minute or two before, say, Young checks out or whatever the case may be that slides Huerter back to shooting guard but it’s an option that the Hawks have, and Huerter’s size can make it possible — he’s a tall two-guard.

For his actual game last night, Huerter was instrumental in the first half, scoring 13 points but also shooting 3-of-5 from three in the first half, and they all felt like important threes too as the game was happening live.

In the end, Huerter finished with 23 points on 9-of-21 shooting (marking a career-high in attempts) and 5-of-11 from three. Huerter obviously ended up getting a lot of shots up (how often is it that someone takes more field goals attempts than Trae Young for the Hawks? Young took 20 shots for reference...) but this isn’t a bad thing because when Kevin Huerter is aggressive, that usually results in good things for the Hawks.

Especially when it comes on drives, that’s just an added bonus:

I love the confidence and lack of hesitation Huerter shows on this three-pointer, despite Tatum being in close proximity to him:

Huerter saw a lot of good opportunities last night — there wasn’t a three-pointer that I looked at and thought “Oh, he can’t make that”. I thought most of his threes stood a good chance of going in and this could’ve easily been a night where Huerter sank seven or eight threes.

In the end, he shot 5-of-11 which was good enough to push Huerter’s season average from behind the arc to over 40%, which is fantastic to see. Since January 1st, Huerter is shooting just under 46% from three on over six attempts a game, in addition to just under 15 points per game and 45% from the field. Throw in five boards and just under three assists a game too since the new year, and 2020 has been a positive one so far for Huerter.

Jeff Teague enjoys best game since return

It hasn’t been a fantastic second stint in Atlanta so far for Jeff Teague. In fact, he’s been thoroughly underwhelming for the Hawks and that’s unfortunate because the Hawks could really use some stability from someone as experienced as Teague in that position.

Even last night, it was looking like another mixed bag of a game from Teague, but he would go on to push this very much so to the side behind a strong second half, scoring 14 of his 18 points in the second half.

Teague used some of his quickness a little more in this game than previously but he was mostly the beneficiary of active defense in the second half leading to scoring opportunities.

Here, Teague himself creates the steal on the inexperienced Tremont Waters and steams in for the dunk:

“...Jeff was great in the passing lanes on the ball. Just getting deflections and get himself some easy opportunities...” said Pierce postgame.

Again, it’s Waters who turns the ball over (Collins is credited for this steal) and Teague is the beneficiary, an easy opportunity for him in transition:

Evan Turner helps create the turnover on Jaylen Brown and he takes it in transition before delivering it to Teague, who angles himself for the layup:

The State Farm faithful was very much enjoying the Jeff Teague show, and Teague gave them more reason to cheer as he draws the charge on the very next possession:

Teague was obviously a huge part of that lineup that launched the comeback in the fourth quarter and he was arguably the biggest factor (along with Huerter) in that fourth quarter.

Postgame, Pierce was pleased with Teague’s performance and wants to see more pace over probing.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is get him to play downhill more where he’s not probing but attacking,” said Pierce of Teague. “I thought he did a good job. He got himself going with some steals and deflections which got him some easy layups, and from there in the half-court, tried to carry-over that same momentum and that same attack mentality. I think his speed is tremendous, I just want him to use it a little bit more.”

Vince Carter would go on to describe Teague as “the biggest spark of the game” as well as speaking to the difficulty of what Teague has had to go through.

“You’ve seen the wonderful things he’s done in the playoffs and you know what he has. It’s just a matter of time,” said Vince Carter of Teague. “It’s not easy to come to a team and go from starting to playing a reserve role, limited minutes, trying to find your rhythm, wanting to play well for a new team but coming back home at the same time. All of that factors in. It’s just a matter of time we knew we’d see the Jeff Teague of old, his quickness on offense and defense, which we all knew he could do.

“He was really the biggest spark of the game for us because not only were we getting easy baskets but he starts getting downhill, drawing attention which now gets Kevin Huerter going. It was just great to see. We did all of that without Trae on the floor which is good for us because sometimes, in my opinion, he works a little too hard to get his shot. When you have other guys who are playing well it makes the game easier for him as well.”

Interesting comments from Carter make of those what you will...

At the very least, it would definitely help the Hawks if Jeff Teague is playing well. I’m not sure you could expect a performance like this every night but to get anything like this from Teague would be a huge and welcome boost — he was great last night in that second half.

The Hawks (13-38) are back in action on Wednesday and on the road when they square off, fittingly, against Jeff Teague’s most recent team: the Minnesota Timberwolves, who are absolutely flailing — losers of 12 straight games.

Should be fun.

Until next time...